With so many different formula milk brands on the market, how do you know which one to choose for your baby? Are the more expensive ones better? Find out everything you need to know here.
Watch our video for information about formula milk.
What is infant formula?
Infant formula is a breastmilk substitute that is given to babies who are either not breast fed or are combination fed (fed both breastmilk and formula milk). Formula milk provides babies with the nutrients they need to grow and develop. But it does not have the same benefits as breastmilk for you and your baby. For example, it cannot protect your baby from infections (NHS, 2019a).
Is powdered or ready-made formula better?
Infant formula normally comes in two different forms: a dry powder that you mix with water, or a ready-to-feed liquid formula. You might hear that one is better than the other, but any difference between the two comes down to production methods and there is no evidence that any differences have any effect on your baby (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2021).
Ready-made milks are more expensive and use more packaging. The source of ingredients used varies between manufacturers, and there might also be differences from batch to batch (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2021).
Ready-made products are less likely to be halal-approved and this can also vary between product sizes. So always check each product label (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2021).
What ingredients are in infant formula?
The majority of infant formula milks start with a base of cows’ milk protein, although a few contain goats’ milk protein. Lactose and other carbohydrates, vegetable, fish and other oils, vitamins and minerals are all added to the milk base (First Steps Nutrition Trust, no date).
The basic components of any infant milk, regardless of whether they're powdered or ready-made, are proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The major infant formula producers develop their own brands with a combination of each of these components. You can see a full list of constituents on the packaging of infant formula milk for babies.
Which formula milk nutrients are best?
If a substance has proven benefits for your baby and can be added to infant formula, the law requires it to be added to all formula. So buying a more expensive brand of formula does not mean that your baby will grow or develop better than if you were buying a cheaper one. The basic nutritional profile of the majority of infant milks is actually very similar (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2020; 2021).
In the UK, the ingredients in infant formula are strictly regulated and each manufacturer must follow strict national and EU guidelines on composition (Department of Health, 2013). Formula producers have to add formula milk components in accordance with the regulatory framework of the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 2007. They also have to comply with any relevant changes to those regulations and to regulations around foods for special medical purposes (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2020).
Which formula milk is best?
The answer to this question is that there is no 'best' type of formula. For a healthy, full-term baby, it really doesn’t matter which brand or type you choose. While manufacturers make different claims about their products, regardless of their cost, all brands have to meet the same nutritional and safety standards and have a relatively similar composition (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2021).
First Steps Nutrition Trust is an independent organisation, which has more information here on the different brands of formula milk available in the UK and their ingredients. First Steps Nutrition Trust also has information on the claims about formula milks that manufacturers make.
Can I change the formula my baby has?
Traditionally, parents were advised to stick to one brand, but there’s no good evidence that changing does any harm or good (NHS, 2019a). You can try different formulas to see which your baby might prefer in case the small variations in ingredients have an effect.
As manufacturers sometimes change ingredients slightly from batch to batch, it may be that one brand no longer agrees with your baby (NHS, 2019a).
A few babies may do better with a special formula instead of the regular kind. If you’re worried your baby might be reacting to the formula you're using, your GP or health visitor should be able to advise you (NHS, 2021).
Is formula vegetarian or vegan?
Most formula, and all formula for babies under six months old, is made from animal milk protein. Information on suitable formulas is available here from First Steps Nutrition Trust.
Soya-based formulas are suitable for vegetarians, but are not recommended for babies under six months old except under medical supervision (NHS, 2019a). There are currently no infant milks suitable for vegans in the UK because even those without animal proteins contain vitamin D from sheep’s wool (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2021).
It is recommended that those who follow a vegan diet breastfeed throughout their baby's first year of life. They can move their children onto a non-animal milk at one year of age. Parents who want to bring up their children as vegans should seek medical advice to ensure their nutritional needs are being met (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2021).
How does formula milk compare to breastmilk for my baby’s health?
When formula is prepared safely, it provides babies with the nutrients they need to grow and develop (Martin et al, 2016). Yet formula milk cannot offer many of the same health benefits as breastfeeding, such as protection from infections and other illnesses. This is because breastmilk contains living cells, hormones and friendly bacteria, which change continuously to meet the baby’s needs. And this cannot be replicated by a man-made process (First Steps Nutrition Trust, 2020).
Can I use formula and continue to breastfeed?
If you continue to breastfeed as well as feed formula, your breastmilk will continue to provide nutrition and protection to your baby (NHS, 2019c). Yet because milk supply is driven by frequent, effective breastfeeding, giving your baby formula can mean they breastfeed less often, so you make less milk. Read our article about mixed feeding to find out more.
You may find it useful to talk through your options with your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding counsellor. You can contact one of our friendly and knowledgeable breastfeeding counsellors by calling our Infant Feeding Support Line on 0300 330 0700. They’re open between 8am and midnight every day.
How do I make up powdered formula?
As powdered formula is not sterile, it is important that it’s made up correctly each time, using boiled water that has cooled for no more than 30 minutes. To kill any bacteria within the powder, it is important that the water is at least 70⁰C (NHS, 2019a).
Safe preparation is key – all formula has to be made using the right amount of powder as diluting or using too much powder could make your baby unwell (NHS, 2019b). See our step-by-step guide to preparing baby formula and how to make up a bottle if you’re out for more details.
This page was last reviewed in February 2022.
We support all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.
For more detailed information on the different formula milks that are available, visit First Steps Nutrition Trust.
Department of Health. (2013) DH guidance notes on the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 2007 (as amended). Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uplo… [Accessed 1st February 2022]
First Steps Nutrition Trust. (2020) Claims made for infant formula, ingredients and formulations. Available at: https://www.firststepsnutrition.org/reviews-of-claims [Accessed 1st February 2022]
First Steps Nutrition Trust. (2021) Infant milks: a simple guide to infant formula, follow-on formula and other infant milks. First Steps Nutrition Trust, London. Available at: https://www.firststepsnutrition.org/parents-carers [Accessed 1st February 2022]
First Steps Nutrition Trust. (no date) Types of infant milk and ingredients. Available at: https://infantmilkinfo.org/faq/faq-types-of-infant-milk-and-ingredients/ [Accessed 1st February 2022]
Martin C, Ling P, Blackburn G. (2016) Review of infant feeding: key features of breast milk and infant formula. Nutrients. 8(5):279. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4882692/ [Accessed 1st February 2022]
NHS. (2019a) Types of formula milk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/breastfeeding-and-bottle-feeding/bot… [Accessed 1st February 2022]
NHS. (2019b) How to make up baby formula. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/breastfeeding-and-bottle-feeding/bot… [Accessed 1st February 2022]
NHS. (2019c) How to combine breast and bottle feeding. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/breastfeeding-and-bottle-feeding/bot… [Accessed 1st February 2022]
NHS. (2021) Bottle feeding advice. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/baby/breastfeeding-and-bottle-feeding/bot… [Accessed 1st February 2022]